The Grammar Boss

It’s amazing what a simple adverb can lead to here on our new adventure. This past week I created a bit of a grammar test for our young adults. I couched it as a “boss level” which, in gaming terms, is a part of a game where your character has to fight a difficult opponent – a “boss” – and you have to defeat it in order to move forward in the game. It was indeed a test, even though I worked hard to make it fun. And it all started with a debate about an adverb.

You see, I have a bit of a pet peeve about adverbs – specifically when people do not use them when they should. It irks me when “people drive slow” (i.e., slowly) or when they “do cook bad” (i.e., badly). For a good while now, I have been pointing out correct adverb use to Vie and Aidan. I usually get groans.

Awhile back, Vie and I got into a debate about some adverbs which didn’t seem to exist at all in Vie’s vocabulary, adverbs like “wrongly” and “cooly.” Eventually I had to look these up to prove their existence. The response I got was something like “Dad, people don’t talk like that.”

Now I do understand that colloquially we tend to drop the poor adverb’s “ly” in conversation. It doesn’t detract from its meaning. I hear young adults do this more often than older people and I may have a slight fear that adverbs in our language are going extinct. Nonetheless, I wanted to at least be certain that Vie and Aidan knew their correct use and more broadly, developed good grammar skills. .

So I told them I was going to make a grammar “boss level” and they had to pass it as part of their unschooling. While most of their work is self-directed, I felt I needed to make this ask. They are writing fairly regularly as part of their projects, but we are not doing an English or grammar “class.” I wanted to be sure they continued to develop their grammar skills.

The “boss level” was simply a short story that I wrote with 60 grammar mistakes. They needed to get the boss down to “25% health”, which means that they needed to find at least 75% of the grammatical errors to defeat the boss level. I have the whole thing here under our new Resources menu on our blog along with the answer key. And like many boss levels, it’s hard to defeat the boss in one try; you need to replay the level a bit to get past it.

I started creating the boss level with something either creative, or insidious, depending on your point of view. We all like adaptive games and so what’s wrong with a little gamification of grammar? I went back to some of their writing and studied their individual problematic grammar patterns – things that they would do regularly in their writing. I incorporated these into the “boss level.” It was a little insidious in that these would be tough things to catch since they made these mistakes regularly.

I had a lot of Vie and Aidan’s writing to draw on. Their “paper quest” – a 28 page multimedia paper comparing two video games – was a gold mine, particularly their rough drafts. I also scrutinized Aidan’s herbs and spices flash cards. I reviewed the emails we trade regularly.

I noticed several distinct and unique grammar issues each one had. Vie writes with incredible detail, but also likes to use the gerund form of a verb in sentences to the point that the sentence is really a phrase and not a complete sentence. For example:

And Diablo being an action role-playing game.

Vie is also a fan of run-on sentences. Commas are pretty rare indeed.

Aidan has a rich vocabulary but tends to have a bit of a blind spot for subject-verb agreement (“…fennel seeds is…”). He also tends to not catch the differences between “your” and “you’re”, “their”, “there”, and “they’re”, and “its” and “it’s.”

And of course, adverbs tend to be used sparsely in their writing.

I created a list of all the types of grammatical errors that were patterns in both of their writing and then I incorporated similar patterns into the grammar boss story. Here’s a sample paragraph.

“Your a fool. There is no differences between my army and the greatest Orc army of all time! it’s ranks stretch two the very edges of the hall. My soldiers is well known for being brutal. You cant even compare them to another Chieftans army. When you army stands next to mine their, you can see all the differences such as, their hugely size, large teeth, terrible disposition, and etc.”

I tried not to get too subtle with things they had little practice with so far, such as writing with dialog, but I did put in several very subtle errors that they should be familiar with. I also included a healthy supply of what I assumed were going to be very obvious errors. My goal was that on their first pass they would only find about 40-50% of the problems.

I gave them the test and allowed them to work together on it. I was hoping that since they each had their own blind spots, working together might help them both catch a good number of the errors. In their first pass, Vie and Aidan only found 30% of the errors. I was surprised especially because I told them that there were 60 errors and they stopped at 20.

Vie then took a pass alone. Some of the subtleties started appearing and Vie diligently worked through several iterations, getting closer and closer to the goal. I helped a bit b identifying how many errors were in each paragraph. It was pretty amazing though to see what did not pop out at all. As I expected, patterns were often missed, but even some of the more obvious errors didn’t get identified. Vie hit 90% after 4 tries.

Aidan needed a little motivational encouragement to get through the level. Well, actually, a lot. In each of his iterations, he would find a few more and then want to stop. When I explained that this was like one of the games he played where I’ve seen him play the boss level up to 10 times before he gets through it, he got the rationale I was using for the grammar boss. He then buckled down and made it through. He hit 75% on his 5th try. Unlike Vie, it didn’t seem to be interesting enough to raise his score more 🙂

I’m sure the boss level was tougher than was probably appropriate for their level. I’m clearly not an English teacher and I don’t have a good idea of what level of writing they should be at (yet). I also don’t have other examples of student writing handy to gauge where they are. But, the grammar boss level was doable. It wasn’t so frustrating that they wanted to give up. Even if it was not as “fun” as I had hoped, I did see engagement.

In the end, it was nice to see them collaborate on the first pass. I need to build more collaboration into their projects. It was interesting to see them develop a bit of an eye for proofreading. It’s a useful skill that I still see many adults shy away from. And, somewhat not surprisingly, Vie and Aidan identified every one of the adverb errors in the first pass. The most priceless thing since then is that I’ve watched them watch TV shows like MasterChef and one or both will correct someone who forgets the “ly” in their adverb. I hope I didn’t create little grammar monsters like me. Well, maybe I do 🙂

You can try the Grammar Boss Level here. The answer key is here.

Type-A Detox

I learned something very valuable this week from my son Aidan here in Costa Rica on our new adventure. You might even call it “my second mistake.“ It was about unschooling, parenting, and patience. Mostly though, it was about myself. It was simple. I even knew it in my head logically – I just didn’t embrace it. I might not have even paid enough attention to learn something if I hadn’t had yoga and a quiet chance to reflect.

There are other paths to learning and to achievement than the “Type A” way (here is where you can say “duh”).

I’ve been pretty successful, and fortunate, in my education, my career and my life so far. For as long as I can remember I have driven myself to learn new things, to do more, to push myself to do things better, and to take on big challenges. I like it when things are hard. I like competing with, and working with, people who are better than me because I learn more. I like trying lots of new things. I get bored when there isn’t a lot going on. You might call me Type A (though by Seattle standards I am probably in the middle).

The places I’ve chosen to work, particularly startups and Microsoft, really reinforce this Type A approach to things. I found that working with others like me creates a great energy to push the envelope, It was well and good while I was in those environments, but it isn’t as helpful now as I work with Vie and Aidan in unschooling. They are not Type A.

Aidan also has a different way of learning than I do. I tend to just go try things. I learn by doing. Aidan likes to see how things are done first – for example, watching a YouTube video. Neither is better than the other. They are just different ways of learning.

I had the hubris though of thinking that making progress, accomplishing goals, and even learning was better in a Type A way. I hadn’t actually realized just how ingrained in me it was. One of the more insidious things about being successful as a Type A person is that it can blind you from other ways of being – ways that can be equally as effective. I was unconsciously expecting Aidan and Vie to do things like I do. Debbie had even been coaching me with gentle hints, though I didn’t really embrace them either. It’s time for me to detoxify myself from Microsoft and this Type A way of doing things. It’s not working and when something isn’t working, you need to change it.

How did I come to this rather obvious realization? It started with Aidan and his unschooling cooking project. In the last few weeks, it’s been a little difficult getting Aidan to be “diligent” about unschooling. He’s been watching videos of Master Chef and lots of YouTube videos of cooking different things. He had recipes he was working on and I didn’t see him working on those directly, either through cooking or writing up the recipes.

When I learned how much he was watching videos, I lectured him about watching too much “TV” and not “doing” enough on his recipes. I asked him to give me a breakdown of how he was going to spend his unschooling hours this week and that they couldn’t involve “TV.” Can you believe it? I was expecting him to be a Microsoft Project Manager.

I went to yoga afterward and in the part where you do a bit of meditation, I thought about all of this. I had the blindingly obvious insight that I was expecting Aidan to be me and not Aidan. He was learning his way, which was more about learning through study, and he was doing it in an exploratory path, not necessarily a goal-driven one.

When I came back we went out and had coffee by the pool and talked. He was indeed watching all of the videos so he could learn how to do the different techniques needed in cooking his 10 recipes. He also got “distracted” by other videos of interesting recipes and techniques. I’d now reframe “distracted” to mean that he was exploring the wide world of culinary arts his way – by sampling techniques, looking at different approaches, seeing interesting ways others put together recipes, etc.  In other words, he had a perfectly acceptable, but very different, way of learning compared to me. I told him that I was wrong and I didn’t appreciate his approach to things as much as I should have.

Compounding all of this, Aidan is also a very social learner. He loves working with others (I like that too, but I can just as easily focus intensely and work on my own). One downside of unschooling in another country is that he doesn’t (yet) have easy access to others he can work with.

So, after our coffee chat, I suggested that we cook together. He had been learning to pan fry steak so he could create one of 10 recipes for his project: bacon wrapped steak with pineapple chutney. Aidan had come up with this all on his own. What followed was pretty inspiring, confirming unequivocally that there are other effective ways.

Aidan had watched several videos on pan-frying techniques and had practiced that. Recently he had been watching a number of videos on the best way to cook bacon wrapped steaks. It involves searing the steak in a pan and finishing it in an oven.

When we started making steaks for all of us, I just helped him get organized and then acted as his sous chef. He did all of the actual cooking. He just did it. There was no hesitation. He had a plan. He was very thoughtful about differences in steak thickness and how to adjust cooking for them. He carefully monitored all of the steps. And the steaks came out perfectly. They were perfectly seared, moist and flavorful. The bacon too was cooked perfectly. They were the best steaks I’ve had here anywhere, including in restaurants. Vie raved about them. And Aidan did it in one try.

Aidan was indeed learning. I probably would have spent a lot more time cooking and “burned” through several steaks. I probably would not have benefitted from seeing multiple diverse approaches. I now appreciate his and other approaches far more – not because I saw the results, but because I was reminded of the process and understood it. The University Cooperative School Aidan attended had a great tag line that I love (and should have channeled more): “Childhood is a journey, not a destination.” The same holds true of learning. Intellectually, I knew this. Behaviorally, I didn’t embrace it. I still have much to learn myself, especially about unschooling.

I’ve talked about how change is difficult, particularly when there is complexity. Change is not safe. I was proud of what we are doing here because we are not playing it safe; we are changing everything. Or so I thought. Well, now it’s time for me to embrace more change as I help Vie and Aidan unschool their way and not mine. As a (hopefully former) Type A parent, maybe this is just another way of being “intentionally off path.”

Thanks, Aidan, for the very gracious lesson. Pura vida, bud.